Books to Give or Keep, 2020

A year like no other, 2020 had many of us finding our way to the reading chair to escape the stress of the lockdowns and the fear brought on by the news. While fate played a cruel trick on me by wiping out my ability to focus on a plot, I was finally able to return to my favorite pastime and restore my sanity. As with my previous, year-end suggestions, each of my picks connects to aging, from midlife on up.

When I was pining for a visit with an old friend, taboo in the wake of COVID, Olive Kitteridge returned in Olive, Again (2019) by Elizabeth Strout. Now widowed at 73, Olive retains the acerbic demeanor that endeared us to her before. She reacquaints herself with a man she and her late husband once knew and finds they have a fair bit in common. To everyone’s surprise, they marry. As in the original novel, the story unfolds in vignettes that reveal the character of this exceptional woman. Gradually, she becomes the person we all hope to be in later life when confronted with the grow-or-die circumstances life throws at us. It’s not necessary to read the original to thoroughly enjoy this sequel.

Have You Seen Luis Velez (2019) by Catherine Ryan Hyde is the kind of story that will put the warmth back in your hot chocolate, if not your spirits. When 92-year-old, blind Mildred sticks her head out of her apartment and asks a neighbor, 16-year-old outcast Raymond, if he’s seen Luis Velez, it begins a friendship so life-affirming that you’ll want to share it with everyone you know. Raymond becomes the helpmate to Mildred that Luis was before disappearing and commits to tracking down the missing man, despite being awkwardly introverted and unconvinced that people are good at heart. This story will be enjoyed by readers of all ages. It’s a perfect pick-me-up for the times.

You’ve undoubtedly read about the crisis in residential care for older adults in this pandemic. It’s had many rethinking alternatives to care for their loved ones, which may mean accepting the role of default caregiver. If that’s you, drop everything and read Your Caregiver Relationship Contract: How to Navigate the Minefield of New Roles and Expectations (2019). Debra Hallisey writes from her own experience both as an adult daughter and as a professional caregiver. The “contract” is a discussion (or discussions) between caregiver and cared-for to identify ways the recipient can benefit from support and set boundaries. Creating the contract cements an understanding that will manage expectations for all concerned. Hallisey gives examples of ways to assess the person’s ability to undertake activities of daily living and how to assimilate the feelings that will come up along the way. We want loved ones in our care to feel dignity and autonomy but often unwittingly strip that away. She gives us techniques to state our own needs without feeling (as much) guilt. We’ve read many books on caregiving—this one gets five stars from us.

Buy two copies of A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives (2017) by Lisa Congdon or you won’t be able to give it as a gift. This pretty book, with butterflies on its jacket illustrated by the author, is a collection of inspiring stories about women who have found or recreated themselves. Their journeys are different, but all embraced the freedom to be more truly themselves in later life. Each woman here felt empowered to try new things, caring not what others might think. You’ll find stories of the famous (Laura Ingalls Wilder, Julia Child) and meet those you’ve never heard of, such as a woman who started walking at age 64 and, at 74, has marathons and an ultra-marathon to her credit, and an 85-year-old lifestyle consultant who gives talks to audiences on creative aging. This is a book worth savoring and sharing, one to move you to find your sneakers or that old easel. These stories show us it’s never too late to live an extraordinary life.

I hope I’ve given you books to give or keep that will be warm on a cold night, provocative in a good way and a very pleasant diversion. As always, I welcome your suggestions for my 2021 reading list.